Saturday, July 09, 2005

The Worlds Of William Gibson
(And Inspirations From Neal Stephenson)

A while ago, I was accused of using Gibson-esque references by Allison, in relation to how the corporations and states of tomorrow may evolve into. And I would not even consider Allie to be a part of the vast left liberal conspiracy, so this is unusual, not because of what Allie said, but because of why she said that. For the uninitiated, in an era of trash quality fiction, William Gibson introduced a genre of science fiction called Cyberpunk, set in a near-future dystopian Earth. Amongst other things, he is also credited with the coining of the word cyberspace. His works have been the source and inspiration of several movies, such as Jonny Mnemonic, Matrix and several Manga, Anime and television series.

One would imagine that the realm of economics in cyberpunk is better left to the other master of the cyberpunk genre, Neal Stephenson. After all, his Baroque Cycle coupled with Cryptonomicon could easily be construed to be a historical thesis indicative of near-future predictions towards that end.
But make no mistake - despite appearances to the contrary, Gibson and Stephenson are two very different people handling similar topics in the same sub-genre in very different ways. I remember attending a talk by Gibson, where someone asked him what it felt like to be predicting the future. Gibson quipped that he had hardly predicted the future, he could not even see the permeation of cellphones, something that would have drastically changed some of the storylines in his books. While this is indicative of Gibson's humility, he most certainly does predict the future, in a way that most "futurists" of today can never comprehend. Gibson's world is set in an era where corporations wield more power than any single government, or entity. This is an era where nation-states are obselete, but corporations are not. In Stephenson's worlds, you have communities which are small, self-styled governments in the forms of phyles (i.e. cultural tribalisms and social classes like the Victorians and Confucians). You have the Han, made up of the Han-Chinese, the Neo-Victorians made of people who hold true to Anglo-Saxon cultural totems (immaterial of ethnic origin), Nippon, made up of Japanese and lastly, Hindustan, made up of East Indians. In some senses, this is reminiscent of the small-government model that the Republicans originally stood for (this seems to be no longer true). However, Gibson's worlds primarily focus on the concept of Corporatocracy, a neologism which is a variant of plutocracy, with corporations quite literally controlling, or even becoming the governments. In Gibson's worlds, the concept of giving corporations individual rights has has the consequence of making letting them dictate terms to (and eventually become) the governments. But what makes up a corporation? The people? The board? The founding charter? What if an Artificial Intelligence were to take over the decision making process of the corporations? What if the founders never die and forever remain in cyberspace, their consciousness strapped on to ROMs forever and ever? Do you have a dictator who lives on forever? This is what Gibson explores, and he explores this quite well. But if you think that Gibson explores merely the future, with no consideration for the present, you're quite wrong - some of Gibson's works are even set in the present day. Consider his latest work, Pattern Recogntion, which explores the concept of viral marketing and memes.
Lest you confuse the way Gibson and Stephenson write, the way Gibson explores memes is very different from the way Stephenson explores memes in his books, particularly Snow Crash. Gibson's points are frightfully realistic, and he explores the topic from the perspective of a ruthless corporation that may choose to exploit these themes. The fact that Gibson builds a future that is devoid of the Stephenson-trademarked satirical black humor that's vaguely reminiscent of Joseph Heller gives a more serious feel to his works, something that rings true somewhere deep within us. Ofcourse, all this begs the question of how powerful corporations should really be allowed to get. One but needs to lurk on Slashdot for a day reading the Google-praising and the Microsoft-bashing to realize that even if a company has "Do-no-evil" as their corporate motto, it is almost inevitable that at some point, ethics versus monetary profit becomes an issue. And the primary objective of any corporation is to further the interests of its shareholders, no matter what else the corporate charter may say. That, ofcourse, would be the extreme left-liberal view of things, where corporations are capable of nothing but evil, and to this end, we should definitely curb their powers. And this is where Allie's accusations hold water. And here is why I bet to differ. If you ignore a few religious nutheads, money has been the ultimate motivator for just about everything. Why? Because money is representative of accomplishment and achievement, for the most part. And capitalism in its purest form encourages this line of thought. Corporations are like the Borg. They need to create, assimilate and acquire new technologies or they simply die out. They need to be on the cutting edge of innovation, or they die out. People whine that companies stifle innovation, but that is not true. They expand to consume all available resources, and once there is no more room for growth, they die out when others rise to take their places - bigger, better. If you look back, both Gibson and Stephenson seem to predict a right-dominated future -- Gibson believes that corporations, led by the fiscal-conservatives, would dominate the world while Stephenson indicates that we would have traditional paleo-conservatives back in the mainstream, with the socio-cultural small-government model. Ofcourse, one might consider that a dystopian future would quite obviously consist of the right, in contrast to the utopian socialist future that the likes of Gene Roddenberry expound upon. But the truth is, the dystopian future is quite indicative of a future that we are quite likely to stumble upon, more so than the socialist's idealist utopia. More importantly, this rat-race between corporations forces the best to become better. Once upon a time, the best of the best used to work for Bell Labs. Somewhere in between, Microsoft claimed that it attracted the best and the brightest, but today that is most definitely not true. The very best of today go work for Google, yet another corporation that is not even a decade old. Corporations are the ultimate boundary breakers - they do not care about your color, your race or your nationality. All they care about is how best you can help their bottom line, and how good you are at what you do. This is Darwinism at its very best, and this is what will help civilization. Going to space because we have a calling for it sounds fine and dandy, but it is quite unrealistic. We would go to space if space has something to offer - and what better way than to have that something have a monetary value? Mining minerals, mining fuel, space tourism and the like is what will take us into space, not a utopian ideal of being explorers. Even in the days gone by, conquest and economics drove men to test their limits, everything else came a distant second. The new worlds of yesterday and today hold wonders, first to our pockets and only second to our hearts. But then, this might just be the cynical pragmatist in me. William Gibson Pictures These are almost a year old, but I just thought of putting up these pictures for your viewing pleasure. I had taken them when William Gibson had come to Georgia Tech to give a talk and promote his new book, Pattern Recognition.
Gibson once said - "The future is here. It's just not evenly distributed yet." The corporations are here, they're just not evenly distributed yet.